Political Circumstances

Political Circumstances

Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

June 19, 2022

Political Circumstances

Homily for Sunday, June 19, 2022
Second Sunday After Pentecost
Luke 8:26–39

One thing I appreciate about the “catholicity” of the Church is that, as a corollary of its being “catholic” (“catholic” lower-case “c,” meaning that it proclaims the whole Faith to all people to the end of time), as a corollary of its proclaiming the whole Faith to all people to the end of time, the Church has something to say to us at every time, no matter our circumstance.  So if one wanted to find, for example, affirmation of how difficult it is to believe and to have faith, one could go to Mark’s Gospel and there find that even Jesus’ disciples have no faith (e.g., 4:40).  And if one wanted to find a message of hope for the poor and for economic justice, one might go to Luke and there find his message of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled with good things (1:52–53).  Or if one wanted to find a message of forgiveness, one might go to John’s Gospel and there ponder how Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  The “catholic” nature of the Church means that the Church and the tradition have something to say to us, no matter our circumstance.

But suppose we were looking for the Church to speak to our political circumstance, to shed light on our present political landscape, and to help us discern how best to order our lives among fellow citizens under a shared central government?  Though the Old Testament prophetic tradition has explicitly political writings (that, by the way, pull no punches in their commentary on kings and kings’ actions), to what extent is it possible to translate the prophets’ example to our own times?  Or to what extent do we even want to translate their example to our own times, given how things often did not go well for prophets (e.g., Amos 7:10ff and Jeremiah 38)?  And though the New Testament has some explicitly political passages, those passages merely enjoin us either “to be subject to rulers and authorities [and] to be obedient” (Titus 3:1), or to “pray for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:2) [see also Romans 13:1–7].  Short of holding up for us the example of the prophets, and short of merely being subject to and praying for rulers and authorities, what does our “catholic” tradition have to say to us as we are political, as we are citizens living under a shared, central government?

Though it is told obliquely, almost in code, today’s Gospel passage contains what is arguably the most “political” story in the New Testament.  Perhaps told in “code” so as not to draw attention from the Roman authorities, the political nature of the story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac comes clear when we know the “code.” For example:

  • Luke writes that “Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.”  “Opposite Galilee” is the gentile side of the lake, in the region of the Decapolis, a collection of cities inhabited primarily by Romans, in particular retired Roman soldiers who, in exchange for their military service, were there given land.
  • Luke writes that Jesus asked the man, “‘What is your name?’  He said, ‘Legion, for we are many.’” “Legion” was a word used primarily in the context of Roman soldiers, who at the time occupied Judea.
  • Luke adds that the man was “kept under guard, and bound with chains and shackles”—activities usually performed by soldiers.
  • Luke writes that, “There on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding…”  Scholars believe the Greek for “herd,” ἀγέλη (agelē), was also a local term for a group of military recruits.
  • The symbol of the Roman Tenth Legion, which was one of the legions present in Judea and that put down the Jewish rebellion during the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73), was a wild boar, or pig.
  • When Jesus “gave… permission” for the demons to enter the swine, Luke has Jesus use the Greek word ἐπιτρέψῃ (epitrepsē), a word associated with the issuing of a military command or order.
  • And when the pigs “rushed” or “charged” down the cliff, they (in Greek) ὥρμησεν (hōrmēsen), a word otherwise used to describe soldiers “rushing” or “charging” into battle.
  • [For the above, see Anna Runneson, Exegisis in the Making: Postcolonialism and New Testament Studies, p 194]

Taken together, these clues suggest that Luke might well be making a veiled political statement in regards to the Roman occupation of Judea.  When Jesus “arrived at the country of the Gerasenes,” for example, might Luke have been suggesting that the scope of Jesus’ ministry extends not merely to the people of Israel but to everyone, that Jesus is (in Luke’s words) a “light to enlighten the nations” (2:32)?  Or when Jesus cast out the legion, could Luke have been saying that Jesus’s power is not limited to casting demons out of individuals but that he is (in Luke’s words) the “mighty savior” who would “remember his holy covenant” and “set us free from the hands of our enemies” (1:69, 73–74)?  And when Jesus ἐπιτρέψῃ (epitrepsē), or “gave permission,” to the legion to enter the swine, might Luke have been intimating that Jesus has power even over occupying Roman soldiers?  And when, in response to Jesus’ “order,” the pigs ὥρμησεν (hōrmēsen), or “charged,” into the sea, could Luke be suggesting that, just as God closed the waters of the Red Sea over the Egyptian soldiers in Exodus chapter 15, so in some form would Jesus deliver Israel now?

Given these clues, it may well be that Jesus’ healing of the Gerasene demoniac is a political message objecting to Israel’s being “kept under guard, and bound with chains and shackles” by their Roman occupiers, and expressing Luke’s belief that in Jesus God has indeed “raised up… a mighty savior” who would “save us from our enemies” (1:68–71).

Whatever Luke’s message, it seems Luke wished to keep it veiled rather than overt.  Indeed, like Luke’s passage, much of scripture is “veiled” and does not speak in specifics to our political landscape.  Applying the scriptures to our present circumstance therefore requires creativity.  Though the Roman church has an extensive body of social teachings, which offer a “scaffolding” for how their faithful might order their political lives, our Episcopal tradition is different.  In a nutshell, we in the Episcopal Church trust that, as we are faithful in our worship and prayer, we are formed and converted.  We are formed and converted bit by bit, more and more into his likeness, until we as citizens—like the leaven in the loaf (Luke 13:20) or like lights in the darkness (Matt 5:16)—become agents of reconciliation to those among whom we live, helping by the very way in which we live our lives to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

If you don’t already, I invite you to join me in worshipping week by week and continuing faithful in your prayer so that, as the Spirit moves and works among us, we might bit by bit be formed ever more into Christ’s likeness and—by the very way in which we live our lives—might help God “Come to this people and set them free; free… to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68, 74–75).

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